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Signs and Wonders! — Week Four

Acts 11:1–18 — Sermon Series: Signs and Wonders!

Who is in and who is out? That’s the question that this text forces us to confront. Can we as preachers become signs and wonders for our congregations by examining this text in light of today’s controversies over who is in and who is out in our own communities and denominations? Can our voices be as bold as Peter’s as we call for full inclusion of those whom we continue to refuse to treat as equals in God’s eyes or welcome at our tables?

In Peter’s context, the question centered on whether or not a follower of Christ could eat with the uncircumcised Gentiles. Today we may think of this as somewhat ludicrous; but in the Jewish world, this would have been unthinkable. It would have been an affront not only to the traditions, but it would have left Peter ritually unclean. Peter, however, argues that baptism in the Spirit of Christ “has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Verse 18). If Peter and Paul and others had not challenged these deeply held religious beliefs, then Christianity would likely never have become much more than a short-lived renewal movement within Judaism. But because these folks believed and taught that Christ came for AL L — “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) — they boldly challenged the laws and morals of their own religious community. This led to transformation and conversion in the lives of many individuals and, indeed, in the ancient world itself, for Christ’s sake. How is it that we Christians have now turned completely about-face and used words from our Holy Scriptures to exclude so many throughout the generations?

I would urge us, as we prayerfully read this text, to talk with the members of our worship teams or study groups about what kinds of issues arise from considering its meaning for our own contexts of ministry. Consider, for example, President Jimmy Carter’s announcement to leave the Southern Baptist Convention. How does this passage from Acts challenge interpretations of Scripture that have led to the worldwide oppression of women? How has Scripture been read to uphold slavery and exclude persons of color from the body of Christ? Or consider the United Methodist Church’s current position on homosexuality alongside the arguments presented at the recent challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act that is now before the Supreme Court of the United States. What insights might we gain about our nation and our own denomination in light of considering this passage? Other social issues to consider in light of this passage would be immigrants, refugees, homeless persons, and other marginalized groups. How does this passage challenge not only our denominational positions, but our local practices? How does a passage like this become a herald for our day and offer signs and wonders that might bring about transformation for the people and communities we serve?